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Individual / Team Performance Tension

There’s an elephant in the room. Do you see it? It’s over there next to your career. This Agile elephant wants to be seen; everybody knows it, but sometimes we don’t want to look.

The elephant I’m referring to is the tension between how you get evaluated for career advancement and your willingness to sacrifice personal performance for team performance. We’ve all been there. There’s a moment when you have a great idea. You know it’s a winner, and you could totally pull it off by yourself.

Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be Agile. So, you throw your idea out to the team. Maybe they will come up with some nice tweaks. As you discuss it, it quickly becomes the team’s idea. Work gets assigned collaboratively. Upon completion, the team enjoys the win. YAY!

When it’s time for performance evaluation, two other team members note their role in the “win.” You can feel good about contributing to a great team collaboration -- the heart and soul of Agile practice -- but that elephant is standing over by your career, wondering if you’d have scored more points if you’d pulled the whole thing off by yourself.

To be sure, there are organizations where your teammates would ensure that you got ample credit for the idea and the great collaborative opportunity you created. Are you in one of those? They are rare. Despite encouraging Agile practices, many organizations have antiquated performance management systems that lack the appropriate mechanisms for measuring individual success in a highly collaborative environment where individual performance becomes de-emphasized.

More often, individual performers who take bold steps to help the team be successful get noticed by leadership. Their “take charge” attitude is a signal that they are eager to move up. When they inevitably do move up, they will look for the “horse that brung em” in others to promote. The cycle continues.

My friend Dave, who is a developer well-versed in Agile philosophy, said this to spark the writing of this article:

“A growth mindset requires a person to embrace difficult tasks. accept challenges as a growth opportunity and not a failure, accept and give constructive feedback, etc...

Agile processes, methodologies, and mindset create excitement for a team to embrace those tenets as a whole rather than as individuals “

He’s not wrong. However, suppose Dave wants to advance his career. In that case, he’d better make damn sure that his leadership gets this and knows how to identify people like Dave, who will happily toss great ideas into the ring without any expectation of taking individual credit. Over time, his team will realize that Dave has tons of great ideas and is always there to support other team members. They will consider him a high-value individual.

Dave’s teammates have careers to think of, too. How much are they willing to build up Dave’s accomplishments -- potentially at their own expense? It’s a question for Agile organizations. I have met some great servant leaders, but for every one of them, I’ve met many leaders who got where they were by “playing the game.” It wasn’t the Agile game.

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